Neil Finn, ‘Dizzy Heights’
Neil Finn has written effortless pop songs since the 1970s, both in Split Enz and, especially, in Crowded House. He also has a penchant for working with family: with brother Tim in Split Enz and the Finn Brothers; with wife Sharon in the Pajama Club; and, on “Dizzy Heights,” his third solo album, with sons Liam (a successful singer-songwriter in his own right) and Elroy as well as his wife.
“Dizzy Heights” steps away from the perfectly crafted guitar pop that has usually been Finn’s specialty. At times, it’s more abstract and experimental (the grandiose, falsetto “Divebomber” and the ominous “White Lies and Alibis,” with its disruptive electronics), and these tracks display the fingerprints of producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev). Elsewhere, Finn tries his hand at blue-eyed soul (the slinky, string-kissed title track and the Hall & Oates-like “Flying in the Face of Love”). The latter style works better than the former, but Finn too often sounds like he’s working hard to stretch outside of what he does best. Steve Klinge
Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Small Town Heroes’
Roots-music lovers have a new heroine to discover in Alynda Lee Segarra. This Bronx-born folk singer of Puerto Rican descent ran away from home to ride the rails when she was 17 and wound up in New Orleans. Along with a winning name, her collective Hurray for the Riff Raff have in Segarra a commanding front woman who never oversings and writes songs of startling intelligence and empathy that reinvigorate the tried-and-true without ever seeming to try too hard.
“The Body Electric,” a song with a title inspired by Walt Whitman that’s a feminist corrective to the romanticized misogyny of murder ballads, is the one that'll get lots of attention. But this Americana coming-out party is rock-solid from start to finish. Dan DeLuca
Toni Braxton and Babyface, ‘Love, Marriage & Divorce’
Toni Braxton and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds have had more hits between them than the testimony in a Philly mob trial. Teary, weary, and smooth, Edmonds pretty much invented the new-school/old-school sleek (but not slick) romantic adult R&B genre when he penned “Grown & Sexy.” Braxton’s powerfully tender, pleading voice could summon rain on the sunshiniest day. One thing that unites the pair is that each has gone through the pain of public divorce. That’s why, 22 years after their “Give U My Heart” duet, Braxton and Babyface return with a bold, soul-soaked take on the state of separation.
As they hark back to Motown’s Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell glory days, the duo simmer through love’s troubles (”Where Did We Go Wrong”) and steam up the guilt-ridden “Hurt You” as if having a conversation over snifters of Drambuie. The wrung-out emotionalism of “Roller Coaster” is matched by the seductive swerve of “Sweat.” These two are masters at such romantic rope-a-dope. Each singer goes it alone (BabyFace’s “I Hope That You’re Okay” and Braxton’s “I’d Rather Be Broke” are best), but dramatic duets such as the pleading “Take It Back” cut deepest. A.D. Amorosi